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East Lyme police report four instances of use-of-force over last two years, one civilian complaint

Editor's note: This article is part of a series about civilian complaints and use of force investigations conducted by area police departments.

East Lyme — Over the last two years, the town’s police department has reported four instances where officers have used a form of force to subdue suspects and has received just one civilian complaint within that time frame, according to documents obtained by The Day.

Seeking to review local police accountability as the public responded to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, The Day filed Freedom of Information Act requests for all use-of-force reports filed by officers within the department, as well as complaints filed by civilians, from June 1, 2018, to June 1, 2020. The Day filed similar requests with all area police departments.

During that time, the department made 377 arrests and 2,284 traffic stops, 64 of which resulted in arrest. Out of the four instances in which officers used force, which range from using a Taser gun to pepper spray, the department found all instances were warranted and appropriate and did not require disciplinary action against officers.

All four instances took place in 2020, which police Chief Mike Finkelstein said is mere coincidence. Of them, one involved a Black male, another a Hispanic male, and the remaining two involved white males.

Some resulted in minor injuries such as scrapes and bruises, as well as mild side effects from the use of pepper spray, while others resulted in no injuries to the suspect. Officers also reported experiencing mild injuries due to the altercations, and suspects were brought to the hospital if warranted or when requested.

Finkelstein contended by phone this past week that all four use-of-force instances demonstrate the sometimes erratic, unnerving and dangerous behavior that suspects may exhibit during varying scenarios and the unpredictable situations officers may find themselves in while on the job.

“It’s a split-second framework. It’s a framework where you have to quickly determine what is the lowest level of force you have to utilize to bring this to a safe conclusion — and the conclusion is that you have to bring this person into custody with as little injuries as possible,” said Finkelstein, who reviews and signs off on every report filed within the department.

"I think what (these reports) say is that we do an outstanding job of handling most situations without having to resort to physical force," Finkelstein said. "These reports show you that these instances are driven by the behavior of the suspect."

Officers must file a use-of-force report with the department if they use a form of force, which could range from a "form of force that if used correctly will not cause death," such as a "takedown," Finkelstein said, to using a handgun or deploying a Taser gun, as outlined in the town’s use-of-force policies, while arresting a suspect. Their report is then investigated by a sergeant within the department and also forwarded to a department's training officer for further analysis. Finkelstein then must review the report and make a final determination. Should discipline be warranted, Finkelstein will forward the report to the town’s Police Commission for review and a final decision.

Finkelstein said police are required to use the lowest amount of force necessary to bring a suspect or situation in control. Officers are trained to quickly weigh several factors during such situations to determine which method of force is most appropriate depending on the circumstance, Finkelstein said, explaining officers must think not only about their safety and that of the suspect, but also the safety of the people who may be in the vicinity.

Instances of use-of-force

In a March 20 incident, suspect David James Phillips, a 28-year-old white male, was subdued by a Taser after running into the Sleep Inn motel after engaging police in a car chase with his Ford F-350. Police said he was driving over curbs in an attempt to evade police after he was spotted speeding around 1 a.m. on Chesterfield Road by Officer Matthew Willett.

After Willett pursued Phillips through town by car, Phillips parked his truck in the Star Mart gas station parking lot before running off behind the building to the nearby Sleep Inn, where he was later stunned with a Taser gun in the lobby after not following verbal commands to stop running and concede to arrest.

Willett, who was alone and did not have backup, asked Phillips to lie in the “prone position” to allow for his arrest, but “The subject looked at me, hopped to his feet and began to flee out of the lobby towards an interior hallway with access to guest rooms," Willett wrote in his use-of-force report.

“The subject was 6’3” tall and weighed approximately 260 (pounds), significantly larger than myself," Willett said. "I did not feel that I could effectively prevent escape without the deployment of a less lethal force option. I also was concerned that the subject may gain access to a guest room and barricade himself.”

Because Willett was the only officer pursuing Phillips and because he worried Phillips could be carrying his own weapon, Finkelstein said Willett appropriately deployed his Taser gun in this situation and argued that stunning Phillips was the safer option compared to using an alternative lower use of force, such as a tackle, to subdue him.

“In this situation, he had to deploy the Taser rather than have a grappling match and confrontation,” Finkelstein said. “It was safer for everyone, especially in this situation, the Taser was a more appropriate use of force to get this person into custody.”

In a March 28 instance, police pepper sprayed suspect Michael Wilkins while trying to remove him from his Volvo after police observed him speeding through town before then repeatedly ramming his vehicle into Officer Willett’s police cruiser at the intersection of West Main Street and Fairhaven Road.

According to his use-of-force and arrest reports, Willett said he observed Wilkins' vehicle driving in “a reckless manner” on West Main Street during heavy traffic, alarming passerby and later nearly hitting a group of children on bicycles before turning onto a tertiary road off West Main Street.

Correctly deducing where Wilkins' vehicle would come back out onto West Main Street, Willett positioned his police cruiser across the intersection of West Main Street and Fairhaven Road to block Wilkins from turning back onto West Main Street, he wrote in his use-of-force report.

After Willett made several loud and clear commands for Wilkins, the then-52-year-old Hispanic male, to stop his vehicle, Wilkins “disregarded these lawful commands and intentionally accelerated his vehicle into the driver’s side of the cruiser,” Willett wrote. “He repeated this maneuver a few times, spinning the tires in the process.”

Wilkins proceeded to resist arrest and “remained defiant,” even after Sgt. Terry Saffioti arrived on the scene and attempted to pull him from his vehicle. Willett then deployed pepper spray into Wilkins’ face and “executed a takedown maneuver” to restrain Wilkins with handcuffs after he had attempted to run away.

When “you have someone … who is trying to flee and is driving in an erratic manner that could ultimately injure someone, you really need to get them immediately out of the car and into custody,” Finkelstein said, explaining why such use-of-force was appropriate in this instance. “We couldn’t allow this person to continue to be in the car. We needed to get that person out of the car and to do so, (we) physically had to do that.”

Police later discovered Wilkins had warrants out for his arrest and was charged with assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, driving with a suspended license, reckless driving, disobeying an officer’s signal and failure to drive in the right lane.

In a March 4 incident, police said several officers were needed to subdue 37-year-old Dwayne Denton, who is Black, after he attempted to evade his arrest by driving his car away, despite an officer being in the vehicle on its passenger side.

Denton was pulled over after, officer Lindsay Cutillo wrote in her arrest report, she observed Denton driving at a “high rate of speed” on Black Point Road before then illegally passing the right side of two cars, the first of which was using a left-hand turn signal, on Main Street.

After Denton pulled over, Cutillo said she could smell marijuana from the car and asked Denton to step out of his Nissan Altima. He refused and then put the car into drive. Cutillo and backup officer Lawrence Watson then grabbed Denton’s arms to stop him while officer James Levandowski entered the passenger side of Denton’s car “in attempt to shut the vehicle off,” Sgt. Paul Renshaw observed in his narrative as part of the arrest report.

As Denton tried to drive away with Levandowski still in the car, officers Cutillo and Watson fell to the pavement, injuring themselves. Levandowski continued “to struggle with the operator,” who also eventually attempted to “grab Officer Cutillo’s Taser and had her by the arm" after she ran back to the car.

Several additional officers arrived on scene and used Tasing and pepper spray methods to subdue Denton, who, they wrote, remained combative.

Police later discovered Denton was criminally impersonating a Florida man by presenting the man’s driver’s license to police instead of his own and pretending to be the Florida man until his fingerprints showed otherwise.

One civilian complaint

One civilian complaint filed with the department since June 1, 2018, was obtained as part of The Day's FOIA request. Civilians are able to file complaints with police through a variety of methods, including in writing or by phone or electronically, and complaints may remain anonymous.

Finkelstein assigns a sergeant to investigate the complaint before presenting him with their findings.

The one complaint obtained by The Day is heavily redacted since it involved a minor but alleges Officer Willett was rude to the juvenile and his mother during the Jan. 1 incident where the juvenile was taken by police after allegedly “shining a light into the room of one of the guests” at the Motel 6 around 1 a.m.

In her complaint, the mother wrote she is “unhappy with the conduct of Officer Willett” and that his tone and manner was disrespectful” toward her, especially as she was not the suspect in question, and raised concerns about “targeting/profiling.”

According to an investigation conducted by Sgt. Michael Macek, the mother’s complaints were unfounded after police observed dash-cam footage and in-car audio recordings showing that Officer Willett approached the scene in “a very nonchalant manner” and “not aggressively” and “maintained restraint” despite the accused being “antagonistic” as well as “berating Officer Willett and his family members.”

Acknowledging the amount of trust the public puts in police to accurately police themselves while investigating complaints and use-of-force reports, Finkelstein said by phone this past week, "I think first and foremost, we take great pride in doing the job that we do. It's not just a job, it is what we've invested our lives into."

"I've recognized and understand that the actions of my officers reflect on me. I take great pride in my career always being above board and honest in everything I'm saying, so it's crucial," he said. "And we don't have people in the community saying we have offcicers are discriminating, and that's what we strive for."

m.biekert@theday.com

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